Wednesday, July 13, 2011
AFC North's biggest future stars
By James Walker
A team-by-team look at the players I expect to be the most dominant in the AFC North from 2014 to 2016.
The AFC North has been dominated mostly by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens for the past decade. But that doesn't mean those two teams are guaranteed to stay on top forever.
The balance of power in the division 3-5 years from now will be decided by which young players develop into the next group of NFL stars. All four teams have up-and-coming players with the potential to be future Pro Bowlers.
Here is a look at one player from each team who could dominate in the AFC North from 2014 to 2016:
Mike Wallace has already established himself as one of the league's most dangerous deep threats.
Mike Wallace, Steelers receiver: In just two seasons, Wallace has already established himself as an elite deep threat. He has averaged 20.3 yards per reception over his career and recorded 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. The scary part is that Wallace, 24, isn't close to reaching his ceiling. The past two years, Pittsburgh has played to Wallace's strength of running primarily deep routes. But the team is looking for Wallace to become more well-rounded in the offense this season. Once Wallace adds the short and intermediate routes to his repertoire, he will become a perennial Pro Bowl player.
Ray Rice, Ravens running back: Rice, 24, already has one Pro Bowl on his résumé and should have more in his future. He's also coming off back-to-back 1,200-yard rushing seasons and averages 4.5 yards per carry in his career. Rice is also one of the best receivers out of the backfield. The Ravens are expected to sign Rice to a big contract extension next offseason, which probably will span 2014-2016, which is when Rice will be in his prime years. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, 26, also was taken with Rice in the 2008 draft. Both players will be growing together and should become a dynamic combination.
Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns cornerback: There was some skepticism a year ago about whether Haden was worthy of the No. 7 overall pick. Despite a slow start, Haden put all those concerns to rest once he entered the starting lineup in the second half of the season and finished with 64 tackles and six interceptions. Haden displayed very good ball skills, solid tackling and the willingness to mix it up and compete with the physical receivers in the AFC North. He's only 22 and should continue to develop into one of the better corners.
A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals receiver: This was the most difficult choice in the division. The Bengals have plenty of young talent -- such as Jermaine Gresham, Carlos Dunlap and Jordan Shipley -- but it's hard to project which player has superstar potential. Green may have the best chance out of the group. He was a dynamic talent at the University of Georgia, and Cincinnati invested the No. 4 overall pick in the receiver in April's draft. Obviously, quarterback is a major question for Cincinnati, and that will affect how Green's career turns out. But if rookie quarterback Andy Dalton proves to be the long-term solution, Dalton and Green could be a good passing combo several years from now.